The nightmare of corporeality in Andrzej Żuławski’s ‘Possession’: A personal essay

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Content warning: Blood, body horror and mental illness

I.

In a Berlin subway, a brunette woman in a blue dress ascends an escalator. She clutches her belly in maniacal laughter, which echoes through the tunnel. The woman crashes her body into the tiled walls. What was laughter contorts into anguished, angered wailing. The contents of a shopping bag splat and splash against the wall — sick yolk-yellow, white milk soon to spoil. Eyes wide, the woman convulses and flails, emitting labored birthing sounds. As if possessed, her body falls to the ground. On spread knees, the woman gives birth, but only white fluid and blood ooze from her orifices into a pool beneath her. She gasps and heaves. Her labor miscarries into a long primal scream.

II.

Horror films are funhouse mirrors that warp and reflect fears, desires, traumas and perversions. They engage the senses, prey on memories and test thresholds for the disgusting, the violent and the eerie. A good ghost story raises skin and hair. The supernatural intrigues and extends speculation. Psychological horror turns our minds against us. No matter the genre, successful horror films leave one’s stomach knotted in dread. They help us face death in simulated nightmares. Whatever happens to the characters, we emerge alive — albeit with ears aching from the pressures of our hands and a sudden desire for warmth, light and company.

Despite my own tolerance for ghost stories, psychological horror and exorcisms gone wrong, I’ve found what terrifies me involves the body and all the ways we can be reminded that we are but walking meat.

I tread with trepidation when it comes to body horror, a horror subgenre. In particular, I tend to avoid gratuitous gendered violence or grotesque mutilations and mutations of bodies (I have not touched “The Fly” or “The Human Centipede” franchise for this reason). I search for the nearest exit at the mere mention of childbirth, pap smears, surgical processes or painful symptoms of disease that involve the uterus. 

My aversion is enough to mutate comedies into nightmares. Instead of making me laugh, “Ali Wong: Baby Cobra” had me ready to faint from her graphic descriptions of her friend’s post-pregnancy genitalia. Thankfully I can still enjoy tacos, but I will be steering clear of comedy about pregnancies.

So why is it that the Polish director Andrzej Żuławski’s “Possession” (1981), with all its scenes of bodily horror, violence, doubles and tentacled monster sex, remains one of my favorite horror films? 

III.

Possession,” set in West Berlin before the wall’s fall, centers on its main characters’ disintegrating marriage. When Mark (Sam Neill) finds out his wife, Anna (Isabelle Adjani) is having an affair with Heinrich (Heinz Bennent), a violent tug-of-war ensues; Mark wants Anna to “restore order” as mother and wife, while Anna wants her freedom. They trade bloody blows and self-mutilate, neglecting their child. Anna spirals into hysterics, unable to articulate her distress beyond cryptic soliloquies and tearful or delirious screams, her hysteria inciting Mark’s own. As their marriage falls apart, so does the world around them.

Gaumount/Courtesy

Perhaps because the film is itself a chimera of genres (blending elements of noir, psychological thriller and drama), I was able to withstand its components of body horror. Mesmerized, I watched Anna’s famed subway meltdown (a harrowing performance which cemented Adjani’s Best Actress win at the Cannes) and miscarriage. To my surprise, the scene did not so much terrify as captivate. Recognition birthed relief. What neuroses and emotions I was told to manage, repress and sublimate were dialed up to an extreme degree, finding both vessel and release in Anna. While I feared losing control, Adjani performs this loss of control onscreen.

IV.

Other women have connected to and spoken about the subway scene’s cathartic powers. I would be remiss not to mention Kier-La Janisse’s incredible “House of Psychotic Women: An Autobiographical Topography of Female Neurosis in Horror and Exploitation Films,” which blends film theory, reviews and analysis with memoir.

On the experience of watching women in horror films, Janisse writes in her book, “As my own neurosis became more subdued I found myself unconsciously drawn to female characters who exhibited signs of behaviour I had recognized in myself: repression, delusion, jealousy, paranoia, hysteria. But these issues didn’t magically disappear; they just became buried beneath business and activity, and came back to sideswipe me at inopportune moments.”

Films occupy a dreamspace that is nevertheless attached to reality. The place between fiction and reality allowed Janisse to face her neuroses and “investigate rather than avoid” them.

Janisse asks in her writing, “If watching horror films is cathartic because it provides a temporary feeling of control over the one unknown factor that can’t be controlled (death), then wouldn’t it make sense to assume a crazy person would find relief in onscreen histrionics?”

V.

If I told you that sometimes I want to discard my body, to unsuit myself, cast off skin, organs and blood to walk the earth a skeleton until I’m ground to dust — would that make sense to you?

This is a desire that is not without history. But I do not want to reduce it to a certain event or disturbance. So it goes: An “event” (often traumatic) happens and the person’s reasoning is thereby attributed to said “event.” All reason, all motive for irrational re/actions are born from that “event.” The urge to narrate and put things in the clean order of cause and effect obliterates nuance, ambiguity and contradiction. 

This sometimes-desire and the relief I felt from seeing Anna lose her s— in the subway is linked not to an “event” but to a process. The process of wearing my body and being worn by my body. If you ask me for a history, I wouldn’t know where to begin. 

You may read this tendency to theorize as a defense mechanism. You can call it a refusal. 

I come bearing theories; I point in a general direction but not at a specific point. My affecting experience of the subway scene is shaped by the historical weight of gendered violence, the expectations and forms of domination that constrict the historical and political category of women, reducing and binding them to bodies. The body is a burden, the locus of associations I have no control over.

Thus, I disassociate, disavow and disconnect from mine. 

VI.

I read the film this way: Anna wants to escape her body. Yet her body is the only surface on which she can make her interior spiritual agony legible. Both Heinrich as lover and Mark as husband try to possess and contain Anna for representing the opposite of the “order” Mark desires, for going against the social scripts of mother and wife, for exemplifying that which cannot be controlled — excess emotion, desire and irrationality — Anna is made to feel crazy, evil, like “immoral s—,” in her words. This excess spills over the boundary of her body. She splits and multiplies into doppelgängers.

Indeed, the word “hysteria” takes its root from the Greek hystera, meaning uterus. Excess emotion was associated with women, located in bodies — an essentialist diagnosis that obscured the material conditions that were suffocating women, making them “hysterical.”

Traces of this diagnosis appear in the film. Mark confesses that he’s “at war against women.” He thinks they “have no foresight, there’s nothing about them that’s stable, there’s nothing to trust. They’re dangerous.” But he says this to Helen, Bob’s teacher and Anna’s green-eyed doppelgänger. Sound of mind and succeeding in “wifely” duties where Anna fails, Helen dismisses Mark’s resentful remarks as another one of the “stories of women contaminating the universe” that she finds pathetic. Helen observes that Mark associates freedom with evil, thus associating Anna with evil. Anna is made the monster.

But look back on the etymology of monster, derived from the Latin monstrum or divine omen, and the Latin monere, to remind or to warn.

VII.

Anna, tearful and forehead damp with sweat, tells Mark about the subway incident. What she “miscarried there was sister Faith and what is left is sister Chance.” She launches into a soliloquy stunted by stutters and pauses:

 

“It’s like there’s two sisters, faith and chance. My faith can’t exclude chance, but my chance can’t explain faith. My faith didn’t allow me to wait for chance and chance didn’t give me enough faith. And then I read that private life is only a stage and I play in many parts that are smaller than me and yet I still play them. I suffer, I believe, I am, but at the same time, I know there’s a third possibility like cancer or madness. But cancer or madness contort reality. The possibility I’m talking about pierces reality … I can’t exist by myself because I’m afraid of myself. Because I’m the maker of my own evil.”

Gaumount/Courtesy

Anna isn’t simply looking for freedom and independence from her marital life and the roles that it entails, but some greater divine meaning. Prior to the subway scene, Anna visits a church. She looks up at a figure of a crucified Jesus, whimpering as if asking him for permission or mercy. Words seem insufficient to articulate her question or pleas. Not even the Savior seems to understand; there is, of course, no answer and he stares off into the distance oblivious to her suffering. Having been disavowed by God, Anna loses (and miscarries) her faith. But precisely out of that miscarriage, something else, something “monstrous” is born.

Enter the tentacled lover, Mark’s doppelgänger.

VIII.

Anna overflows. The motif of green eyes (which appear on Anna’s palms after the miscarriage) links her to Helen and to the lover Anna abandons both Heinrich and Mark for. This lover, object of her repressed desires, is at first a tentacled mutant writhing in fluid and blood like a newborn. By copulating with it and feeding it the corpses of the detectives Mark sends after her, Anna is able to shape and perfect it. Ironically, the monster/lover develops into Mark’s green-eyed doppelgänger.

Although visually different, one can interpret the monster/lover as Anna’s excesses. This lover is born of her. Made from her fluids, agony and violence, it is a version of her and something meant to complete her — the answer to her desperate pleas. Only in creation is Anna able to gain some sense of control. 

The tragedy is that what she repressed outlives her; she cannot control or possess it.

IX.

“Draw a monster. Why is it a monster?” — Janice Lee, “Daughter”

In “Horror” (2009), Brigid Cherry writes that body horror relies “heavily on abjection and the associated feelings of abhorrence, disgust and revulsion.” The “monstrous threat” is not from the outside, but rather it collapses “distinctions and boundaries” by erupting from within the human body.

I turn to all this theory to make sense of my fascination with the subway scene and why I don’t recoil in disgust. Watching Anna’s body thrown around reaches beyond beauty, grazing against a monstrous, divine truth. Her body isn’t enough to contain her yearning, shame and guilt. She loses control; her body wears her. 

I am reminded of corporeality’s sheer terror. 

For a moment, I can suspend my fears and denial as I watch my nightmare unfold. It’s easy to dismiss the subway scene as a meltdown, evidence of madness and hysteria. But these are not the right words or explanations, only substitutions. Words fail to capture and contain. What remains, despite my efforts, escapes easy narration. It will outlive me.  

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Contact Kris Shin at [email protected].